One must always preface reviews of television or movies whose source material stem from books with a proviso: things will change, especially for direct adaptations, but also for projects that only glancingly utilize the written properties. BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency definitely resides in the latter category.
Based on the character from Douglas Adams’ (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) two Dirk Gently novels nominally, the series might attract an audience if they know nothing about those two books, but will more likely confound and frustrate the fans who are looking for Adams’ brand of weird silliness. Oh, the series is plenty weird, but the humor does not come easily or naturally.
Contradictions from the book’s Dirk to the show’s Dirk abound. First off, there’s Dirk Gently, formerly Svlad Cjelli, a schlubby and somewhat arrogant detective in London who doesn’t seem to do much other than run up bills, but nonetheless manages to get the job done. His stated mode of investigation is into the “interconnectedness of all things” and so, he claims, he doesn’t have to go full-Sherlock to find the answers. The answers, in a Butterfly Effect universe, will find him.
A better analogy for what the original Dirk seemed like would be Doctor Who or more specifically Tom Baker’s version of Doctor Who. You see, Adams wrote the Who serial Shada which ended up uncompleted due to a series of workers strikes aimed at the BBC in the 1980s. Adams was script editor of the show but, at the same time, was running his own Hitchhikers program. Adams left Who and found massive success with his own creations. When he started to feel pinned down by Hitchhikers, now primarily a series of novels and not a radio or television show, he turned his attention toward the character Dirk Gently and retroed his scripts for Shada into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
All of this has nothing to do with the new series. Lanky, noodle-like Samuel Barnett plays the detective and is engaging for short periods of time, but for most of the series he is exhausting in that cracked-out, slow down & shut up kind of way. Dirk is in Washington state where strange things are afoot. He winds up enlisting Todd, a loser who can’t get off his failing streak, played by Elijah Wood. Todd is trying desperately to hold his life together and to protect his sister, a shut-in who experiences painful psychovisual activity.
A girl is missing. Her father is dead. He was, apparently, up in the penthouse suite of a posh hotel when he was bitten in half by a hammerhead shark. There’s also a kidnapped bodyguard, an electrical engineer kidnapped by a psychic assassin, a bald cult of tattooed kidnappers, a group of anarchists who may or may not be kidnappers, another kidnapper who has kidnapped the girl who may or may not be possessed by a dead rock star, dumb cops, dumb FBI agents, and dumb secret agents, all of whom aren’t as dumb as they seem, and some of whom aren’t as they seem at all. Oh, and the dog that is possessed by the missing girl. And there’s a government conspiracy, but isn’t there always?
In the chaos of so much stuff there are the bones of something recognizably Adams-ian, how order suddenly seems to appear from nowhere and congeal, and the trick would be to rearrange those bones to make some kind of sense. It doesn’t have to be logical sense, but it does have a recognizable shape. In Adams’ world, that’s close enough. But this isn’t Adams’ world. This is Max Landis’ (American Ultra) world. For a sci-fi comedy, which ostensibly this is, there’s a hell of a lot of blood being spilled, body parts strewn about, machetes, gunshots to the forehead, electroshock arrows to the chest, and the body count is tremendous. There is a perverse glee on display with how many ways a nose can be broken or a body can be stabbed. I don’t bring this up in a prudish protest. There are some gruesome moments in Adams’ books too, but they had measure and weight. In Landis’ rendering, life is cheap; really, really cheap.
That’s the problem with the series: it runs counter to Adams’ life philosophy which is the interconnectedness of all things. It is the central theme of the Hitchhikers series even if it is not explicitly stated. If you move through your world believing everything has meaning and actions have consequences, you will act responsibly. You cannot stop the Texas butterfly from flapping its wings and inadvertently starting a tsunami in Indonesia, but you can stop from killing all the Texas butterflies and consigning Indonesia to a drought that lasts a century. Or, you can just stop killing Texas butterflies because it is stupid to do so.
That said, the show still winds up being entertaining in a nihilistic, video-game, “let the bodies hit the floor” kind of way. Landis knows “how” to do what he’s doing even if he himself may not have a grasp of the “what.” That is, creating and running a series that is more like an X-Files season written and run by Darin Morgan, the celebrated staffer who brought a handful of comedic episodes of that show to air. Had this been its own creation, with its own character structures divorced from this paper-thin connection to Douglas Adams’ sensibilities, a fair amount of viewers could go into the show with an unbiased perspective, and could possibly enjoy it more.
As it stands, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a long, dark time of the soul but there’s nary a cup of tea in sight. Proceed cautiously.